July 05, 2005


Mark Liberman has pointed us to the hilariously awkward musings of  "Starcreator" on the site forum.wordreference.com about stranded prepositions, which this poster deprecates.  But if you go back to the beginning of the thread, something else interesting turns up, namely a discussion of circumstances where no choice among alternatives seems satisfactory.  When people reflect on their choices, none of them seems to work, so they claim to opt for some totally different expression.  It's not at all clear that this is the way people actually behave; quite possibly, in their unmonitored moments they use one or another or both or the alternatives.  But the act of reflection itself calls up attitudes that make both alternatives problematic.

It started with "suzzzenn" (a self-described speaker of American English, from New York), who appealed to the forum:

I could use some help with a paper I am writing. I have looked at so many examples evrything is starting to sound OK, even sentences that I know are wrong! Could native speakers give me thier judgments as to which sentences sound natural and which sound strange? I know that many of us were taught in school to never end a sentence with a preposition, but please ignore that rule for these examples! All the linguists that I have read say that there are some situations where it is possible to end a sentence with a preposition and the rule is an overgeneralization.

suzzzenn asked for judgments on a collection of sentences, which are entertaining in themselves:

1. What a curvy road we are driving on!
2. On what a curvy road we are driving!
3. On the kitchen table, the man is sitting.
4. The kitchen table, the man is sitting on.
5. He's the one who I bought it from.
6. What a dirty room the children are playing in!
7. In what a dirty room the children are playing!
  He waited for the crosstown bus.
8. For which bus did he wait?
9. Which bus did he wait for?
  She left the conference after the second lecture.
10. Which lecture did she leave the conference after?
11. After which lecture did she leave the conference?

The ensuing discussion revealed respondents all over the map: people who were generally happy with stranded prepositions, people who rigidly insisted that they were always wrong, people who said you could always go either way, people who said that sometimes there were alternatives, sometimes not.  AND people who said that neither of the alternatives -- 6 vs. 7, for instance -- were acceptable; instead, they said, they insist on something like The children are playing in a really dirty room!.  (Fronted prepositions are really hard to live with in exclamations.)

It's a conflict:  what the Wh Exclamation construction calls for vs. what Dryden's Rule (a.k.a. No Stranded Prepositions) insists on.  If you're consciously attentive to Dryden's Rule you're in a bind, and neither alternative will do.  So you feel you have to go for something else.

Probably there's no issue until you actually ask people which variant they would choose.  Probably, in real life they just do what they do.  (And, as linguists, we'd really like to know what that is.)  But when you ask, they're caught in a vise.

Another example/anecdote:  one of my graduate students innocently asked her mother whether she preferred How big a dog did you see? or How big of a dog did you see?  -- asking about the two variants of "exceptional degree modification" (EDM, on which there's a considerable literature; the most recent reference to the phenomenon in these precincts is here).  Her mother said: neither was acceptable.  One was too fancy, the other too nonstandard.  What you say is: You saw a dog; how big was it? or How big was the dog you saw? or You saw a dog that was how big? or whatever.

I doubt that in real life she avoids all variants of EDM.  But we can't ask her; we have to listen.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 5, 2005 12:54 AM